Welcome to Breaking the Blueprint — a blog series that dives into the unique business challenges and opportunities of underrepresented business owners and entrepreneurs. Learn how they’ve grown or scaled their businesses, explored entrepreneurial ventures within their companies, or created side hustles, and how their stories can inspire and inform your own success.
Networking is connecting with other business professionals, building relationships within and outside your field, and diving into your story to establish the “why” behind your work.
Effective networking highlights your expertise and that of your peers so that you can find a middle ground of opportunity, collaboration, and collective problem-solving. Because of the power of networking, professionals are often told to focus on building their networks.
That is easier said than done, though, because people from marginalized communities — specifically individuals who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) — have historically been underrepresented and left out of the very spaces that are necessary to be in to make those valuable connections.
In this post, we’ll discuss why networking can be a challenge for LGBTQ+ professionals, where LGBTQ+ professionals can network, and tips for successful networking.
Why is networking a challenge for LGBTQ+ professionals?
The lack of access and representation in leadership roles at organizations can make networking a uniquely arduous task for LGBTQ+ people.
A June 2020 report from McKinsey & Company found that openly LGBTQ+ women comprise only 1.6 percent of managers and an even smaller share of more senior levels within organizations. LGBTQ+ men make up 3% of senior managers/directors, 1.9% of vice presidents, and 2.9% of senior vice presidents. The same report found that transgender people face exceptionally sharp barriers to advancement in the workplace, and their experience is distinct from that of cisgender people who also identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer.
As a result, finding people to network with that share common values and experiences can be challenging, which is why events specifically for LGBTQ+ professionals are a valuable place to develop relationships.
Where can LGBTQ+ people network?
Professional conferences and events are an excellent opportunity to shift the narrative on representation as they provide opportunities for LGBTQ+ people to network and build connections. And, a beneficial aspect of networking at conferences is that they typically have a sense of community built in via curated programming and central themes.
For LGBTQ+ people, the built-in community environment of conferences can be particularly helpful because research shows that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to feel isolated and less supported by their peers, and management, in workplaces. In addition, conferences also give attendees access to industry leaders they otherwise might not meet to share their stories, experiences, and expertise with.
So how can LGBTQ+ people harness the power of networking at conferences? This is an especially important question to answer in 2022 as events return in full force since being largely halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
8 Networking Tips for LGBTQ+ Professionals
Returning to in-person or hybrid networking across virtual and in-person spaces can feel awkward after being out of practice for several years. Here are eight tips to get you started to maximize your opportunities as an LGBTQ+ professional.
1. Find the conference or event’s target audience.
The first step before entering any new situation is to know who your audience is, aka who will be there. Are you attending a primarily or exclusively LGBTQ+ professional conference such as Lesbians Who Tech & Allies and The Out & Equal Workplace Summit, or is it a general industry-wide conference?
When you have this information, it becomes easier to create a plan of action for establishing goals and how you’ll approach people at the event.
2. Create a 360 plan.
Once you know your audience, you can make a 360 plan, meaning what you need to do before the conference, during, and afterward. Yes, any good networking plan involves a post-conference plan, like establishing the tools you’ll use to follow up after meeting new contacts (or reconnecting with former contacts).
A great strategy is to develop a post-conference spreadsheet of the contacts you met, organize the spreadsheet by industry or company, and include notes about your interactions, talking points or questions you have, etc.
Here are some other questions to take into consideration as you develop your 360 conference networking plan:
Who do you want to connect with? — Are there specific individuals, people from specific organizations, companies, or industries?
What do you want to know? — Are you interested in exploring current industry trends, challenges that people in similar roles to you are having, or any new projects people are working on?
3. Establish clear expectations and goals.
Part of developing your plan is establishing clear expectations and goals. Doing this helps you manage your time better and avoid the sense of overwhelm that can be common at conferences from the pressure to connect with as many people as possible.
Be specific and clear in these goals and expectations. Most importantly, be realistic. For example,
“I want to walk away with x number of new contacts” — If you are going to use #’s as metrics, be realistic about this. Bigger/more is NOT always better.
“I want to connect with people from x organization or company.”
“I want to share my experiences doing x with x people.”
4. Set personal boundaries.
Along with setting clear goals and expectations, you should also be setting clear boundaries.
We don’t often discuss or think about boundaries regarding networking because the old adage is “More is better.”
Still, setting boundaries can mean not accepting people misgendering you or disrespecting your identity, carefully considering offers for connection to see if they’re relevant to you, asking questions to ensure your expertise is not being taken advantage of, and honoring yourself and your needs as you meet new people.
5. Take advantage of tech tools for connecting.
An integral part of developing your networking plan should be taking advantage of tech tools for connecting.
Many conferences use apps that allow attendees to make profiles, share contact information, make virtual business cards, and more. Take advantage of these tech tools to build your profile and identify people you want to connect with beforehand.
Additionally, ensure your LinkedIn or other profiles are up to date before attending the event. LinkedIn can be a major tool to drive engagement and new connections, especially during and post-conference.
6. Connect for community, not clout (and appreciate the slow build).
Focus on making genuine connections and building community versus falling into the trap of quid pro quo networking “I can do this for you if you can do this for me.” Avoid transactional relationships, and focus on building genuine relationships.
Additionally, appreciate the slow build, especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic — people are getting used to reconnecting and networking. It takes more time than it used to to establish those connections, especially if you are trying to break into a new industry or field.
7. Share your unique story.
Your story is the heart of who you are and, in many cases, the “why” behind your work. Come up with 3-4 core talking points of who you are and your why that you will be able to share with folks in conversation as you meet them.
You can even take the next step by having materials ready to showcase who you are, examples of your work, and how to get in touch with you.
8. Take breaks.
Take breaks throughout the conference day. Build them into your schedule, even if they aren’t built into the event schedule itself. You do not have to attend every session, plenary, or talk to maximize your networking capabilities at conferences and events.